Portsmouth’s top cop says he’s anything but bored here

Portsmouth Police Chief Thomas F. Lee Portsmouth Police Chief Thomas F. Lee

Portsmouth Police Chief Thomas F. Lee

Portsmouth Police Chief Thomas F. Lee

PORTSMOUTH — Before he was selected to be the town’s police chief Sept. 23, Thomas F. Lee already had more than 30 years of experience in law enforcement, which included serving as a senior commander for the Boston Police Department’s largest district. Chief Lee, 55, has been married for 24 years to his wife Mary, who’s also a police officer. They have a daughter who’s a junior studying business at Stonehill College. Chief Lee, who lives in Hanover, Mass. but is looking for a place to rent here, sat down with us last week to talk about his plans for the department.

You were in charge of Boston’s largest police district — 200 employees serving 65,000 residents and 500,000 daily visitors. Aren’t you going to be bored in Portsmouth? “We don’t have 200 officers; we have a 33-man department, so it’s a little different from what I came from. Still, even for a small town, there’s a lot going on here. We have a lot of mileage here, when you look at the size of this town. We have two major roads with a lot of accidents. We’re lucky, though. We don’t have a high crime rate; we’re one of the safest communities in the state, in fact.”

Still, this must be a big transition for you. “In Boston, I had a huge staff. I had two secretaries, not one. There was a lot of delegation and I was the public face because of all the meetings I went to. Here, I ask, ‘Who does that?’ and they say, ’The chief does it.’ This is a very hands-on job.”

Are the two jobs alike in any way? “It’s very similar in terms what the public are looking for, what the public complain about. People complain about quality-of-life issues; they don’t complain about crime. In the city people don’t complain about crime either; it’s noise, it’s traffic.”

What’s a biggest difference you’ve seen in Portsmouth? “People like to talk to the chief directly here, even for just general information. Their son was in an accident — ‘I want to talk to the chief.’ There’s more of that than I expected.”

What do you think of our fair town? “I like it. It’s a nice community and we have a great police department; the command staff is great. A lot of folks have stopped by just to meet the chief. I’ve got an open-door policy.”

What question have you been getting the most? “How tall are you?” (The chief is 6 feet, 4 inches tall.)

Any major initiatives planned? “I want to get community policing going again here. There have been cutbacks over the years. We used to have guys go out and do meetings. We have to have our patrol, so if you don’t have the extra bodies, that kind of gets cut. Over the years, the D.A.R.E. program was cut, we haven’t gone out to the senior centers recently. I want that to get going again.”

What else? “I also want to get the citizens police academy going again. We’ll do say a 10-week class with maybe 10 to 12 residents who apply. We’ll do a background check. We bring them in and the detectives show them how we lift fingerprints, we’ll take them out for a ride-along in the cruisers, we’ll take them out to the (firing) range and show them how to safely handle a firearm. They’re going to see policing from the front seat of a police car and find out, it’s not TV. It’s obviously not a full police academy, but a familiarization academy for citizens. Anyone who’s gone through it greatly appreciates the job more — what the officers have to deal with. We hope to get going on that in a couple of months.”

Outreach efforts? “We had a lot of public meetings (in Boston), but it’s different here and I’m looking at ways to reach out to the community. It was my idea to start a (Facebook) page. So many people communicate through social media now. We had that page up two days and we had 367 likes. I got my hair cut this morning by Eric down by the barber shop, and he was talking about the Facebook page.”

How can Facebook help the police? “Somebody sent us a message yesterday about speeding on their street. A lot of people find it easier to communicate that way, especially the younger generation.”

Any other feedback on the page? “There are two questions everyone asks: Who’s the lady (records clerk Debbi Pappas) holding the dog, and why does one guy (Prudence Island Officer Glenn Young) have a baseball cap on? That’s his dress uniform; it’s a little different.”

Any other projects? “I’m looking to put together a history of the Portsmouth Police Department. I was surprised when I came here that we didn’t have one. We believe the department goes back to the late 1880s. If anyone has some old photos of family members … we know there are retired guys in town. We weren’t even sure what number chief I was. We don’t have a listing of the chiefs. We’re going to try to build that back.”

You also teach? “I’m an adjunct professor at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. I teach a master’s class in homeland security. It’s fun, but it’s not going to be driving from here to there.”

Do you and your wife talk about policing at the end of the day? “It’s the last thing you want to talk about it.”

Personal interests or hobbies? “In Boston, you work just about every weekend, so I never was able to take up golf or do any of the other hobbies. Will I start at some point? Who knows? For the past 33 years, policing has pretty much been my hobby.”

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